Expatriates need social and workplace support, says professor

Expatriates need social and workplace support, says professor

Companies must select expatriates not only based on job performance, but their attitude and overall personality, says Professor Varma.

By Whitney Critten |  Student reporter

Most companies select employees to work abroad primarily on job performance alone, yet do not provide continued support for workers and their families. This often leads to negative experiences for expatriates and their families during their time abroad, says Arup Varma, PhD, professor of human resources.  

For the past 15 years, Varma has studied expatriate work issues, specifically looking at the importance of support from host country nationals and how organizations can better prepare and support their workers once they’re abroad.

His research on expatriate issues has been published in notable peer-reviewed journals including the Journal of Managerial Psychology, the International Journal of Human Resource Management, and the European Journal of International Management.

Here, Varma discusses what drew him to his current research area, key insights from his research, and offers some words of advice to students interested in working abroad.

Why study expatriate issues?

I myself am an expatriate. I came from India to get my PhD from Rutgers in engineering in the early 90s, and I’ve been in the United States ever since then. My transition from a collectivist culture in India to the individualist culture in America would not have been possible without my professors and classmates. They taught me how to address them, where to hang out for fun, and key places in the neighborhood to shop.  

Without their support, it would have taken me months to figure this out, and I wouldn’t have enjoyed my time at Rutgers as much as I did. This is why for the past 15 years, I’ve been dedicated to finding out what motivates locals to help expatriates assimilate into local cultures and thrive.

Any notable key insights from your research?

Expatriates need both social and workplace support from host country nationals if they are to succeed on their assignments abroad. Social support helps expats thrive outside of the workplace and immerse themselves into the local culture. Workplace support shows expats how to interact in the workplace because this can vary significantly from country to country–even in the same organization.

With regard to the motivation of locals to help expats, we’ve found they help based on personality type and perceived values similarity. That is, is the expat nice, humble, and willing to learn, and do the local and expat share similar values?

Once we’re better able to understand the motivations of locals to help expats, then we can work with companies to train and better prepare expats for life in a new country. But one thing is certain: When you go to a new country, try to learn the culture first.

How can companies better select and prepare expats?

Companies, specifically human resources departments, must select expats not only based on job performance, but their attitude and overall personality. Are they open-minded? Do they like to travel? These are key factors in selecting the right person to work abroad.

Once a potential expat is selected, companies need to bring the family into the interview process to determine how they feel about moving to a new country. They too need to be open-minded and willing to try new things. It is my recommendation that if the family isn’t on board, then don’t send that employee, because an unhappy home life in a new country has the potential to make the overall experience negative for an expat.

Companies must also encourage potential expats to conduct research on a country before they leave to determine if they need to learn the language. At the same time, it is the company’s responsibility to ensure that there is a support plan in place for the expatriate.

Advice for students who want to work abroad 

I get so excited when students come to me for advice about working abroad, because it’s the way of the world. My advice for students:

  • Study abroad while they’re still in school. It provides students with a glimpse into the life of an expatriate, and also opens them up to other exciting opportunities.
  • Do their research and think about the type of work they want to do, where it’s happening, and the companies that operate there.
  • Find out the types of jobs companies are hiring expats for, and determine if they meet the qualifications for these jobs.
  • Take a deep look at themselves. Do they have the social skills to go out, meet new people and form relationships? This is essential for an expat to survive and enjoy their time abroad.

In closing, I recommend that if students are presented with the opportunity to work abroad, they must take it, and it least try it out. Give the world a try, and you may surprise yourself. Immerse yourself in different cultures, and let the cultures change you. It will be for the better; I guarantee it!